Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Finally! OTEC Is First on List of Hawaii Renewables, But Blind Spot Persists About Technology’s Promise

We had begun to wonder whether ocean thermal energy conversion would ever get its due on a local editorial page, but it’s finally happened. Futurist Jim Dator and energy consultant Manfred Zapka listed OTEC first as they ticked off renewable energy resources available in the 50th State in the last part of a three-part Honolulu Advertiser series.

That may not mean much to most readers, but we’ve been complaining since the early days of this blog that OTEC has been the forgotten resource when editors and other journalists write about Hawaii’s alternatives to oil.

Not to be overly sensitive on the point, but as recently as two days ago, an editorial writer focused only on wave energy when mentioning the recent U.S. Department of Energy’s funding of a National Renewable Marine Energy Center in Hawaii. Here’s what the DOE’s press release said:

"National Renewable Marine Energy Center in Hawaii will facilitate the development and implementation of commercial wave energy systems and to assist the private sector in moving ocean thermal energy conversion systems beyond proof-of-concept to pre-commercialization, long-term testing."

OTEC was the meatiest part of that paragraph for several reasons: First, long-time OTEC watchers know the DOE turned its back on the technology more than a decade ago when it ended OTEC funding. For it to be back in the OTEC game is a significant shift. Second, OTEC would be baseload power, unlike just about all the other renewables that get attention, including wave power, so it has greater potential to actually replace oil.

What the Media Have Missed

And third, when combined with Hawaiian Electric Company’s recent statements about the importance of “set-asides” for the ocean energy technologies, it seems obvious to us that OTEC is hotter than it’s been for decades. Robbie Alm’s comments at the August meeting of the Hawaii Venture Capital Association – as yet un-reported by the local media - deserve repeating:

“We need to have (projects) get on our system, so we have a strong preference for technology that’s proven. At the same time, we are going to create specific room for new technology. We talked to the PUC about this, and they are strongly supportive of it, so we do intend to have set-asides to allow, for example, the ocean people to come to Hawaii. They have not had either the federal or the state tax support, public support that wind and solar have had. And so to some degree, we need to give the ocean resources a special opportunity to be successful in Hawaii. If we do that, they’ll come here. If they come here, we all benefit by that.

That’s quotable stuff, right? We’re not making too much of this, wouldn’t you agree? One would think these comments and HECO’s overall approach to ocean resources might be picked up by an attentive reporter – but not yet.

The Age of OTEC

It seems obvious to us that signs point to the beginning of the OTEC age in Hawaii – maybe not with an announcement of some kind this quarter (although we can hope), but soon. Contributors Dator and Zapka at least brought the technology to the fore on the editorial page. Now let’s see if working journalists can pick up the signs and recognize that OTEC offers the best hope for Hawaii to get off oil.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sustainability Seen as Competitive Advantage Key

Sustainability may be a 14 letter, six syllable off-putting word, but it can be fun as well as profitable for any corporation that commits to sustainability as a way of doing business, according to Judah Schiller, today’s breakfast speaker at the California Bar Association meeting (at right following his talk). 

A no-longer-practicing attorney, Schiller (whose business card is about three-quarter size) is executive vice-president of Saatchi & Saatchi S, a consultancy within the international advertising agency. S stands for you know what, and to hear Schiller tell it, any business without a sustainability officer is losing its competitive advantage.

Schiller’s been called “corporate America’s go-to greening guy” and is in demand for his success stories in working with major corporations to help them infuse sustainability in their operations. Another focus of Saatchi & Saatchi S are individual consumers who can be motivated to make better choices among the vast array of products available to them.

Hawaii as Client?

Corporate employees who commit to a Personal Sustainability Project can transform themselves while supporting their companies, said Schiller. Wal-Mart’s 1.5 million employees collectively have 200,000 pounds of weight loss among them, as well as 19,000 former smokers thanks to personal commitments to enhance their own sustainability.

During the Q&A, we noted that Hawaii has fewer citizens than Wal-Mart has employees and asked if Saatchi & Saatchi S has ever taken on an entire state as a client. Schiller said it was an interesting question (Ad Man Translation: sounds like a good idea) and mentioned the Tennessee Valley Authority and the City of Chicago as government entities his firm has supported.

With its economy headed into the tank, Hawaii could use some help from a global advertising/sustainability agency. Schiller’s speaking schedule suggests he has more than a few frequent flyer miles to chew through. Given some background on Hawaii’s potential to be a renewable energy and sustainability model (see Blue Planet Foundation), maybe he’ll use them to check us out. “Saatchi & Saatchi S Honolulu” has a nice ring to it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

CA Attorneys Hear Compelling Case to Preserve Sea

We’re taking a break from Hawaii's ongoing dismal economic news --- well-established restaurants closing, double-digit tourism declines --- for a weekend in Monterey, CA with the California Bar Association’s convention. The featured speaker after today’s lunch was National Geographic “Explorer-in-Residence” Dr. Sylvia A. Earle (at right after today’s talk), whose presentation on global climate change’s impact on the sea also included her gentle chastisement of the human species for pillaging ocean life for our dining pleasure.

Earle has spent 6,000 hours below the ocean’s surface and says she doesn’t eat seafood for fear she might recognize a face. Just as humans’ features are unique, fish and animals in the ocean differ from one another, too, she says. Some fish species’ numbers have declined more than 90 percent in recent years, a trend she warns is unsustainable. “Can you imagine feeding the planet with song birds and furry little things?” she asked, which in effect is the scope of what we’re doing with seafood.

Working the OTEC Angle

Anyone remotely connected with ocean research and preservation knows about Earle, whose whimsical "titles" include “Her Deepness” and “The Sturgeon General” thanks to her remarkable career of ocean exploration. We managed a few minutes with her before her talk and mentioned a mutual acquaintance with whom Earle has worked – Charlotte Vick, formerly of Honolulu and now a Texas resident.

Earle knows Hawaii well and seemed genuinely interested in ocean thermal energy conversion “developments” in Hawaii, such as they are, agreeing that OTEC could significantly reduce the Aloha State’s un-aloha-like carbon contribution to the planet’s atmosphere.

The California lawyers gave her a standing O and a warm sendoff as she prepares for meetings tomorrow in Washington, where officials are dealing with another kind of climate change and endangerment.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

High Oil Costs Prompt ‘Restless Sea’ Power Progress

The ups and downs in the price of oil leave more than a few of us wondering what’s coming next and scratching our heads about “confluences” and “reinterpretations” (see post immediately below).

Fortunately, as reported in today's New York Times, research and development continues in alternatives to oil, such as the ocean energy technologies, the focus of this blog.

Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) receives only passing treatment in this story compared to wave and current power, but it’s there nevertheless. Hawaii will have a role in OTEC's commercialization, so as they say, as long as they spell it right, any news about OTEC is good news.

Note: The Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism invites you to participate in its energy survey, accessible at its home page.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Hope You Enjoyed Two-Week Era of ‘Cheap Oil’; Crude Price Leaps $25 in Biggest One-Day Jump

9/23 Update: Oil price falls today almost as much as yesterday's gain, which reportedly was caused by "a confluence of one-off circumstances and a re-interpretation of supply and demand issues."  That clears it up.

When oil slipped to $91.50 last Tuesday, we’re sure we weren’t alone in wondering how long the decline could this last before commodity traders said enough is enough.

“Enough” was today. Starting the day around $104/barrel, oil futures surged to $130 before dropping to nearly $121, “a record jump of $16.37,” according to the New York Times.

Today’s increase made up for almost 30 percent of the decline from July’s high of $147.27….and just as we started to get used to the modest decline in gas prices.


Anything But Oil is once again the mantra in Hawaii, the nation’s most oil-dependent state, where it’s burned to generate 78 percent of the state’s electricity. Today’s “anything” is wood chips from eucalyptus trees grown and harvested on the island of Hawaii, as described in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

The project’s backers must be counting on good growing conditions if they’re prepared to invest “close to $200 million” in their operation. Of course, wood burning has been around as a “technology” since our distant ancestors accidentally started the first forest fire.

We wish these entrepreneurs good luck with their project, which seems to be sized right for the Big Island, but satisfying the electrical demand of Oahu with wood chips could devour entire forests in no time flat.

We therefore hope for some good news about ocean thermal energy conversion from Hawaiian Electric one of these months. OTEC presumably would qualify for the “set-asides” that HECO recently mentioned for ocean energy technologies.

Since the tropical Pacific Ocean would be OTEC's inexhaustible energy source, plugging in sooner than later to that source would be just about the best A-B-O news we could imagine.

Friday, September 19, 2008

DOE Awards Millions for Ocean Energy Research; Univ. of Hawaii To Assist OTEC Commercialization

The pieces of the ocean energy puzzle continue to come together, and today’s news makes the picture even more compelling when combined with recent developments. The US Department of Energy today announced funding for what it calls “water power projects” to include $1 million a year for 5 years to the University of Hawaii, along with more than a dozen other projects according to this news item at SustainableBusiness.com:

"National Renewable Marine Energy Center in Hawaii will facilitate the development and implementation of commercial wave energy systems and to assist the private sector in moving ocean thermal energy conversion systems beyond proof-of-concept to pre-commercialization, long-term testing."

This is good news indeed from the DOE, which has gained a reputation in the past decade (deserved or not) of not being supportive of ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC).

Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii had this reaction in today’s Honolulu Advertiser:

"Surrounded by water and dependent on imported oil, Hawaii can and should be a leader in harnessing alternative energy from the ocean."

That’s a familiar refrain showing signs of gaining widespread currency and determination in these islands.

• News Item:  At the time of this post, the per-barrel price of oil has increased more than 10 percent this week.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Oil Price’s $50 Fall Can’t Be Ignored Any Longer, Just As Rise to Nearly $150/Barrel Isn’t Forgotten

We’ve put off writing about the two-month slide in the price of oil from its high around $146 per barrel in mid-July. Our predictions in early summer that oil was on its way to $200 look pretty weak now that the price is below half that.

But what goes down must go up in a world with shrinking oil supplies and increasing demand. Some things don’t go down at all with the oil price, as the Wall Street Journal points out today.

Fuel surcharges and baggage charges implemented by the airlines aren’t likely to be eliminated, and that’s bad news for a Hawaii economy already rocked on every side. “This year in the worst” says one Waikiki small-business operator in a Honolulu Advertiser story next to the page one news of the continuing Wall Street meltdown.

Wanted: Good News!

With tourism down, revenues down and spirits down, what this state needs is a dose of good news. Our prediction record isn’t worth a darn lately, but we’ll go ahead and predict that a major renewable energy story will break in the islands before the end of the year. As a long-time supporter of ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC), we’d like to think the news will be about that technology, and maybe there’s hope. Hawaiian Electric’s recent welcoming public statements about ocean energy presumably weren’t made off the cuff, so stay tuned for what could be page one news of a happier kind than what we all saw today.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lanai’s Energy Plans Featured on HOT SEAT; We Manage To Prompt Short Q&A Dialogue on OTEC

Castle & Cooke’s Harry Saunders was on the Advertiser’s HOT SEAT a few days ago, the focus being the company’s plans to build a 400 megawatt wind farm on the island of Lanai at a cost of $1 billion, according to today's redacted transcript of the session.

Curiously, there’s no mention in the summary of the one thing necessary to make such a large investment pay off -- an undersea electrical cable to transmit the energy to Oahu and the other islands in the chain. Even the complete Q&A exchange in the original HOT SEAT post fails to mention the cable issue except for one fleeting reference in the editor’s introduction to the session.

That’s a hole big enough for an oil tanker’s passage. We sought to plug another one (from our perspective) about Lanai’s energy planning by asking Saunders why C&C’s leadership has shown little interest in ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) to help the island eliminate fossil fuels from its energy mix –- something we’ve proposed several times at this blog, including here and here:

Comma`aina: Harry, I'm surprised Mr. Murdock hasn't shown any interest in being an ocean thermal energy conversion pioneer and blazing new (water) trails with OTEC. The technology could provide vast amounts of potable water for Lanai and, sitting a few miles off the island, would have no on-land impacts. Recent comments by Hawaiian Electric officials seem to encourage ocean energy providers to come to Hawaii. Lanai could be a perfect fit and a fossil-fuel-free island using OTEC-supplied energy for electricity and to replace gasoline for vehicles. And Mr. Murdock's legacy would be remarkably good.

Saunders: In April of this year, Castle & Cooke, MECO and the U.S. Department of Energy joined forces to develop alternative energy options for the island of Lanai. The ultimate goal, established in a memorandum of understanding, is to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity and transportation on the island. In the near term, the parties will be working to generate 70 percent of Lana'i's electricity from renewable energy sources, which could include OTEC. At this time, we are waiting for U.S. Department of Energy analysis of best resources to use to get to 100 percent renewable energy generation.

The caution here is that the U.S. DOE has shown little interest in OTEC for more than a decade and seems stuck in the old paradigm when low-cost oil made OTEC an unrealistic option. It also doesn’t sound like David Murdock’s usual SOP to rely on a government agency for guidance on what to do next.

To be fossil-fuel-free, Lanai will need a baseload source of power such as OTEC or a way to store energy (not yet economic) from intermittent power sources – the solar farm now under construction and the wind farm C&C wants to build.

We suggest Castle & Cooke take note of Hawaiian Electric’s recent encouraging words about ocean energy technology and do more than wait for a DOE analysis on how to make its little island in the Pacific a renewable energy model and magnet for energy industry and eco-visitors who would fill Mr. Murdock’s two money-losing resorts there.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Pick An Island—Any Island—& Energy Concerns Are Nearly the Same: We All Need To Get Off Oil ASAP

As I write this, oil prices have slipped somewhat from the recent highs. Nonetheless, now more than ever, we in the Pacific need to focus on development of renewable energy sources and improved energy efficiency….

There clearly is potential—think of the wave and OTEC energy that could be derived from our vast ocean resources, but that remains virtually untouched.

The key energy problem we face in the region is a consequence of putting all our eggs in just one basket: that of expensive and polluting fossil fuel.

Clearly, we need to look at alternatives but it’s important that we don’t view renewable energy as just a “quick fix” for high prices but rather as the foundation of our future energy policies. We all know that a fossil fuel energy path is not sustainable. Regardless of where prices go from now in the current crisis, we need to invest in renewables now to better deal with the many crises in petroleum markets that invariably will come.

Those paragraphs might have been written by any renewable energy advocate here in Hawaii, but they’re by Asterio Takesy, director at Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) in Samoa. Mr. Takesy’s comments, which appeared in a recent online edition of “Islands Business” that is published by Fiji-based Islands Business International, remind us that the Pacific islands, although thousands of miles apart in the largest ocean on Earth, have a common concern bordering on a crisis mentality -- our overwhelming dependence on external sources of energy.

The common denominator among Pacific islanders is our isolation, and with isolation come high energy costs due to extremely long transportation links and the islands' poor purchasing leverage. This year’s high energy prices even moved the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) to declare a “State of Economic Emergency” due to what it calls food and energy crises.

OTEC’s Potential

One gets a sense in reading publications from the South and West Pacific that governments are desperate for solutions and eager to tap into the stored energy in the tropical ocean around them. From the RMI’s Update Report on its declared emergency:

OTEC potential being watched by RMI. The RMI is actively exploring and discussing the potential use of Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) technology as an energy source in the RMI over the medium to long-term (as the technology continues to expand and develop). Discussions with key OTEC firms and the US are ongoing.”

Hawaii has its share of hopeful OTEC watchers, too, as suggested by the big spike in hits to this blog after HECO’s “set-aside” comments regarding ocean energy technologies two weeks ago (and subsequently expanded in another post a few days later).

In solidarity with our Marshall Island neighbors and with appreciation for their concerns, we reprint here the RMI's invitation for assistance in addressing the islands' food and energy crises:

Development partners who are interested in supporting the RMI with any of these projects (or who have other ideas for cooperation) are more than welcomed. The official contact person is the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Ms. Kino Kabua. Email kino.kabua@ntamar.net, telephone (692) 625-3181/3012, fax (692) 625-4979.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Often Overlooked Biofuel Energy Draws Attention

Having once written headlines and edited copy for a living, we admit to having a chuckle when reading the headline over a Honolulu Advertiser story today: “Future of Hawaii renewable energy projects uncertain

Leave out everything between “Future” and “uncertain” and you pretty much sum up the human condition. Or drop “ocean thermal energy conversion” into the space between those words and you reach the same conclusion.

So much is unclear about energy in this isolated state. How will renewable energy projects be integrated into the electricity grids? What will the Public Utilities Commission do to the whole regulatory picture to encourage that integration? What will the price of oil be in five years? (Many of these issues were discussed thoroughly at the Hawaii Venture Capital Association's August meeting, about which we had much to say last week.)

Hawaii Electric Light Company (HELCO) on the Big Island has legitimate concerns about accommodating three new biofuel projects. As the story notes:

“The problem is HELCO now has 265 megawatts of firm generating capacity on an island with peak power demand of only about 200 megawatts…. It isn’t clear that the utility needs the electricity from the two larger biomass projects, which together want to produce 54 megawatts of power.”

Getting Off Oil

And there’s the rub. HELCO and its sister utilities have sufficient generation capacity to meet their needs; that’s Rule #1 inside the utility industry. If they come up 1 megawatt short of meeting demand, chaos ensues.

But the vast majority of that capacity is fired by fuel oil, which is responsible for 78 percent of the electricity generation in the state. Virtually everyone agrees that has to change, but it isn’t going to happen overnight and it won’t happen without systemic change in how the utilities are regulated and compensated.

We wish the three biofuel projects good luck in working out the thorny details, and we’ll be waiting for some encouraging headlines that emphasize clarity when those deals are done.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hawaii's Economy Bent Low by High Energy Costs

It’s probably time to bump Hawaiian Electric’s Robbie Alm down the page a bit now that a week has gone by since we initially effused over his ocean energy set-aside comments at the Hawaii Venture Capital Association. We won’t stop thinking about them, though, and what his quotes may presage regarding an announcement from HECO one of these days. It’s only a matter of time before an ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) plant is built in the islands, and HECO could be positioning itself and the community for just that day. We hope the waiting is almost over.

Less sanguine is the continuing decline of Hawaii’s economy, a condition that's been evident for months.  Today's Honolulu Star-Bulletin reports on a survey of business attitudes about the economy, including the prediction by 63 percent of those surveyed that things will be even worse next year.

Ending on an Upbeat

Jeff Mikulina, who has headed the Hawaii Chapter of The Sierra Club for a decade, will join the Blue Planet Foundation as its executive director late this month. Wisconsin native Mikulina, who is the media's go-to guy on the environment, will guide the day-to-day operations of BPF, which entrepreneur Henk Rogers founded last year. BPF’s mission is to change the planet’s energy culture – starting in Hawaii.

Hercules and the Augean Stables come to mind, but despite the enormity of the challenge, we think they can do it – with a little help from their friends, including some who occupy offices at HECO!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

More and Better Quotes on HECO’s Set-Asides Intended to Attract Ocean Technologies to Hawaii

We couldn’t contain our enthusiasm last week after hearing Hawaiian Electric Company executive vice president Robbie Alm (at right) say “set-asides” for ocean technology will be part of HECO’s future energy mix. If that’s old news to some of you, we apologize, but it was the first time we heard such welcoming comments about ocean energy from the utility. Just to be sure we had it right, we went to the Hawaii Venture Capital Association website and viewed the video. Here are the pertinent quotes:

“We need to have (projects) get on our system, so we have a strong preference for technology that’s proven. At the same time, we are going to create specific room for new technology. We talked to the PUC about this, and they are strongly supportive of it, so we do intend to have set-asides to allow, for example, the ocean people to come to Hawaii. They have not had either the federal or the state tax support, public support that wind and solar have had. And so to some degree, we need to give the ocean resources a special opportunity to be successful in Hawaii. If we do that, they’ll come here. If they come here, we all benefit by that.”

That’s enough to make ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) enthusiasts start emailing one another and visiting this website (our Site Meter count is way up since last week). Here’s more from Alm’s speech:

“The bottom line for us, and I think all the speakers said it today, is we have to find a way to make all of this work. We have to find a way for people to want to invest money. We have to find a way to make the rules simple enough and straightforward enough. We have to make a system where the incentives line up to the right place. The right place is off oil. The right place is Hawaii-based energy. The right place is to keep that money in our economy.”

“Hawaii is going to lead the world in the switch away from oil. Hawaii is absolutely going to be the place that finds the way to do this business in a way that makes sense for the private sector, for the public sector and for the utility. And I think everybody involved here is absolutely committed to making that happen.”

The HVCA luncheon was packed last week, and the association anticipates an overflow crowd on September 25th when entrepreneur and philanthropist Henk Rogers of the Blue Planet Foundation addresses the group. Anybody intending to be there had best submit a reservation soon.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Lanai, Nukes & More from the HVCA Energy Forum

We’ll make this multi-topic post short so our previous one doesn’t slide down and off your computer screen (please read it). Both the Star-Bulletin and Advertiser have had stories this weekend on local concerns about David Murdock’s proposed big windfarm on the island of Lanai ("Corky" captures the mood in his S-B cartoon, right). The stories are an excuse to reprise our earlier comments on OTEC’s potential for Lanai (1, 2, 3 and 4).

Our enthusiasm continues over HECO’s statements on ocean technology set-asides delivered last week at the HVCA. The group tapes its programs; click here to watch the August 28th meeting (listed as 8/31) -- especially Robbie Alm’s comments near the end. Finally, nuclear power raised its (ugly) head again in a Star-Bulletin letter yesterday. In the spirit of Labor Day, we’ll let our earlier comments suffice on that renewable energy. Enjoy the holiday.